Changing political generations

Spare a thought for John McCain, trying to hold the United States presidency for the Republicans: 81 per cent of Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Here fewer than half do.

But Helen Clark, preparing for her pre-election party “congress” this coming weekend, can take little comfort. Business and consumer sentiment has plummeted. While sentiment has been bad before in her time at the top and in 2005 spiked up to give her a narrow win, the mood is heavier right now.

You would therefore expect a sombre Labour congress. You would be wrong. Labour is regenerating. Whether in opposition or government, it has reason for confidence in its medium-term future.

At last November’s conference there were many new, young faces. There was energy and there was vigorous, constructive debate, without the rancour of past periods of government decline.

Candidate selections reflect that. While the list has yet to be nationally ranked and much depends on Labour getting a reasonable (say, over 35 per cent) party vote, there is a crop of able candidates ranging from upper-20s to mid-40s to add to the emerging younger ministers.

A change of political generation is under way within the party — just as there is in politics generally.

Pick of the new candidates is Wellington Central electorate candidate Grant Robertson, mature beyond his 36 years, affable, tough-thinking, experienced in ninth-floor mechanics and lately a job in the real world. He has the makings of a leader down the track.

Audrey Young featured 15 in Saturday’s Herald, starring Jacinda Ardern. Add six-times-degreed consultant Stuart Nash, 40, settled in Napier and backed by Michael Cullen. Note in her 15, among those well-placed on regional lists, Phil Twyford, Hamish McCracken and Raymond Huo.

Add them to ministers David Cunliffe, who when at his best has leadership potential, Shane Jones, effervescent, smart, ambitious and Maori, David Parker, Maryan Street, Clayton Cosgrove and the quietly performing Nanaia Mahuta — and, in the wings, Charles Chauvel — who have the makings of a capable front bench to take over from the older guard who have run the show for 15 years.

Not that Clark, Cullen, Phil Goff (now one of the cabinet’s outstanding operators), Annette King, Trevor Mallard and Pete Hodgson are decrepit. Their fightback in recent weeks attests to an energy and unity not seen in a third-term cabinet since 1966-69, leading up to Sir Keith Holyoake’s fourth term.

They are not dispirited and drifting as were John Howard’s Australian Liberals last year. Labour here will go to the wire — and under Clark’s leadership, despite some non-Labour wistfulness for Goff.

But those ministers, even Goff, are across a political generation divide from half the electorate. Their political instincts developed in the debates on the Vietnam war, apartheid and nuclear weapons and power, the rise of environmentalism, feminism, abortion and minority rights and the resuscitation of the Treaty of Waitangi — and when social democratic optimism that governments can perfect societies was at its peak.

Anyone 46 or under (or a few years older or younger — political generation boundaries are not chronologically rigid) formed their political instincts after the biggest battles over those matters were over. They have different preoccupations. They value flexibility in policy and customised goods and services.

A Jones, Cunliffe or Robertson is of this different world.

So are John Key and Bill English and most of the up-and-comers in their caucus (though National has some political old fogies, too).

In short, we are going through a changeover of political generations. It is most visible between the leaderships of the two main parties, which is a factor in the election. But it is also within both those parties.

The last such change of political generations was a quarter of a century ago.

This changeover does not promise the drama the Clark generation gave us. But there is an unmistakable shift and it will manifest itself in a different style of government.

For Labour that shift is potentially its salvation. In Britain, Canada and Australia, parties long in government fell into serious disrepair when defeated. Here, win or lose, Labour has a fair prospect of rapid recovery and repositioning to generate a centre-left set of aspirations relevant to the electorate’s emerging majority (to match National’s emerging new centre-right set).

The stage is set in Labour for an internal debate to refashion and rebuild the party’s social democratic strand, favoured by many of the young risers, to challenge the older Labour generation’s dominant social liberalism.

If Labour can thereby develop a constructive liberal-social democratic tension to match National’s recently recovered constructive liberal-conservative tension, it should be a strong opponent.

Clark’s troops this weekend can’t take heart from the polls. But they can take heart from the renewal within.